“The Impact of Black Achievement, White Flight, and Brown’s Legacy”

Students wait in line in an integrated classroom at the Barnard School in Washington, D.C., in May 1955, exactly one year after the Brown decision.

Our opinion aligns with R. Shep Melnick’s The Crucible of Desegregation as the most thorough and equitable discussion of school desegregation research and policy issues in America. However, several important topics that contribute to the book’s equity were missing in his recent piece in Education NextBrown v. Board of Education decision. We aim to address these omitted themes.

Melnick’s book delves into topics often omitted in academic discussions on school desegregation policy. One critical issue is the lack of significant improvement in Black and Hispanic achievement levels resulting from desegregation; another challenge is the issue of white flight, which obstructed the success of desegregation strategies relying on compulsory busing.

The article does reference the inconclusive findings of Sean Reardon and his collaborators that “It remains unclear if . . . racial segregation affects student achievement,” and he mentions a research study by Rucker Johnson indicating significant positive impacts of desegregation on long-term outcomes like educational attainment and adult wages. However, Melnick’s book presents more substantial evidence from multiple authors and studies indicating no consistent effects of desegregation on the academic achievement of Black students.

These findings include earlier studies by one of us (Armor) and Nancy St. John, both revealing limited or negligible effects of desegregation on Black academic performance. Melnick also synthesized in his book a comprehensive assessment of desegregation and Black achievement, a meta-analysis sponsored by the National Institute of Education, along with respected methodologist Thomas Cook’s conclusion that the study found no significant impact on math achievement and minimal effects on reading achievement.

The book overlooks several recent and more rigorous studies led by Armor and Joshua Angrist, a Nobel Prize-winning economist. In a 2018 study, Armor, Gary Marks, and Aron Malatinzky used student fixed effects models to examine statewide test scores across multiple states, finding no substantial effects of school socioeconomic status or racial composition on achievement. Angrist and his team have employed quasi-experimental methods to demonstrate that busing programs for desegregation in Boston and New York presently do not significantly impact student test scores.

One aspect not extensively addressed by Melnick in the book is the influence of white flight and the courts’ neglect of this issue when mandating school desegregation. White flight hinders school desegregation plans as true desegregation cannot occur without white students. A school district featuring a few white students in every school may seem racially balanced, but it would not be considered truly desegregated.

In 1991, the Magnet School Assistance Program within the U.S. Department of Education financed a study on desegregation in 500 school districts, for which we were co-principal investigators. Our findings showed that after adjusting for typical white enrollment fluctuations in the absence of a plan and other factors, districts with a compulsory reassignment plan experienced a 33 percent decline in white enrollment compared to those without such a plan.

We reviewed data from school districts tracking the assignment of students to schools primarily attended by students of another race and analyzed the attendance patterns. These studies, termed “No-Show” studies, revealed significant trends. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 56 percent of white students assigned to schools over 90 percent Black in 1981 did not appear. Los Angeles saw a 57 percent no-show rate in 1978, and Boston had a 54 percent rate. In Savannah-Chatham County, the white no-show rate for schools exceeding 90 percent Black was 42 percent in 1971 and 1972, leading to schools in Savannah having no white students by 1984, prompting the Justice Department to seek further intervention. Many school districts with compulsory reassignment plans continued reassigning white students to schools where previous white students had not enrolled, perpetuating racial identifiability in these institutions.

Why did courts neglect the issue of white flight in their rulings? In our assessment, this stemmed from their failure to define school desegregation—a theme prevalent in Melnick’s scholarship—and their tendency to follow established precedents. If a court construed school desegregation as merely racial balance, the departure of virtually all white students would not matter as long as the remaining white students distributed evenly across schools. Judges likely favored mandating reassignment plans as such decisions had low overturn rates. Only plans offering “freedom of choice,” preserving neighborhood schools while allowing Black students entrance to predominantly white schools, faced reversals.

While Melnick characterizes these plans as “little more than a transparent fraud,” evidence contradicts the notion that freedom of choice was ineffective. If the yardstick for failure is the non-dismantling of the dual school system, then freedom of choice succeeded. In our sample of 500 districts, only two southern districts had zero Black students in white schools by 1968, signifying the dissolution of the dual system. Over time, southern districts lacking formal desegregation plans saw greater interracial exposure, measured by the percentage of white students in the average Black student’s school, than other districts.

Professor Melnick presents a balanced evaluation of Brown‘s legacy, evident in both his article and the connected book. For the intricate and emotionally charged issues arising from school desegregation policies, a multiplicity of viewpoints enriches the understanding of that legacy.

David Armor is professor emeritus of public policy in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Christine Rossell is professor emerita of political science at Boston University.

The post Black Achievement, White Flight, and <em>Brown</em>’s Legacy appeared first on Education Next.

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